"Here for the open house?” squeal two women in platinum blonde wigs and garish pink dresses. They scurry through the foyer in their heels, rounding up groups of theatregoers. We’re not here to inspect a house but we follow the women hesitantly through the doors all the same.
The Kath & Kim-like realtors (Eidann Glover and Polly Sará) pause with their lashings of makeup and fluorescent pink clipboards at another set of closed doors. Like entering a theme park attraction, we’re not sure what we’re going to get.
The realtors open the doors with a flourish to reveal the inside of a dark and dusty mansion. Crystal chandeliers hang from the elevated ceiling, and there’s a pile of chairs dumped at one end of the room. A long white table stretches the length of one wall and in the middle of the table is an elaborate, white tiered wedding cake.
At the front of the room is an oversized set of metal stairs and a red-haired woman in a green bridal gown (Deborah Leiser-Moore) entwines herself around it. At times witch-like, the woman repeats the same words over and over again. Mesmerising. Hypnotic. As though she’s stuck in a loop and as viewers, we are too.
Now and then you can hear the excited shrieks of the realtors outside as they usher another group of viewers to the house. Every time the door opens it’s a jarring reminder of the contrast between the world outside and the people who come and go from this house, and the hellish world that exists on the inside for this woman – day after terrible day.
The woman and her story is based on the real-life Miss Eliza Emily Donnithorne. Residing in Sydney in the 1850s, she awaited the love of her life on her wedding day, only for him never to arrive. Legend has it that Miss Donnithorne became a recluse and many years later was found dead wearing her wedding dress. The wedding decorations, food and cake were also found intact.
In this production, the storytellers struggle to recall key facts surrounding the events. Here, just like the recounting of the real-life Miss Donnithorne, facts are scarce. It’s even suggested by one of our storytellers (Chris Beckey) that the whole thing is fiction.
And yet, in Day After Terrible Day, facts are somewhat unimportant. This is a sensory experience which tempts its audience into becoming participants in the story.
There’s no stage here. Instead we stand and walk, constantly shifting our positions to focus on and follow the performers, or accommodate their movements.
Director/designer Steven Mitchell Wright and his team of performers/divisors have utilised the space in an extraordinary way, making use of varying levels, set pieces and an expansive floor. The performers traverse the range of surfaces, from standing on tables to conducting phone conversations on the floor beneath them.
Ben Hughes’s lighting works in tandem with the performers to seamlessly guide the audience around the vast space – both physically and in terms of directing attention.
Video imagery projected onto the expanse of white walls also works well to magnify the themes about which the performers speak.
Included is a mini documentary filmed in the present day. A girl is putting on her makeup while telling us she does so to get men to look at her and look at her in a particular way. In her opinion, applying makeup is crucial to finding herself a husband. This film itself is perhaps a little at odds with the rest of the production but the themes of applying and removing make up and masks, and bodies and skins, runs throughout this work. The physical and metaphorical unmasking and stripping towards the end of the production is particularly poignant.
The repetition of gentle classical music throughout creates a sense of calm and sadness and adds to the often dreamlike quality of the experience. Carefully timed sound effects and music transitions allow the mood and location to shift often. There’s everything from waltzing to a rave.
At times, all four cast members embody elements of the one character. They’re dressed in similar green dresses with voluminous skirts and long red hair for much of the show, and they often deliver their lines simultaneously. The duplication creates quite an impact in some instances but in others it highlights an uneven matching. In one of the more humorous scenes, Glover and Beckey simultaneously recount the woman’s sexual experiences in a speech laden with double entendres. But it is Glover – with their exuberance – who draws our attention.
It’s in the more serious moments that the cast really excels. By the time the performers are standing in the doorway of the mansion – recounting their vows and unanswered questions, lamenting what they’ve lost, exuding desperation and torment – the audience is engrossed. And the audience is standing by their side – less than a metre away. It’s a unique position from which to view a performance. Stillness, a tear, every quiver, is plain to see.
The standout performance is undoubtedly that of Leiser-Moore. She is captivating in everything she does. We were fortunate to have been near her as she took one audience member by the hand and proceeded to waltz with him. Looking deep into his eyes, she softly shared her stories. At first the character is a confronting presence but even in this ghost-like form she manages to create the sense that with her we are safe. We can trust her to take us on a journey and she will look after us along the way.
After a considerable change in pace and positioning, our journey in this haunted house comes to an end surprisingly quickly. No great sense of closure. More questions than answers.
There’s a lot to absorb in this production. To really appreciate its complexities and even understand some of the creative and narrative choices, this work needs to be experienced more than once. And yet, just over an hour in this woman’s world is enough to feel weighed down by her relentlessness struggle.
As for the story itself, the cause of all this heartache may or may not be a figment of our leading lady’s imagination. We’ll never know what really happened and in a sense it doesn’t matter. This is a story of someone who is grieving and is trapped in a cycle of destruction because she cannot let go. Her memories haunt her as much as she haunts us and the result will move anyone who has ever loved and lost.
The Danger Ensemble presents
Day After Terrible Day
Director Steven Mitchell Wright
Venue: Theatre Works | 14 Acland St, St Kilda VIC
Dates: 1 – 12 November 2022